Death, disaster, drink

The Niigata Ryōkan Study Group (新潟良寛研究会), founded 1975, has an excellent (but, sadly, Japanese-only) series of online "lectures" on Ryōkan's poetry by TANIKAWA Toshirō (谷川敏朗), author of an edition of Ryōkan's poetry in three volumes.

For example, here is Tanikawa's take on Ryōkan's well-known letter to sake brewer YAMADA Tokō (山田杜皐), his cousin Yose's husband and also apparently a good friend of Ryōkan's, after the 1828 Echigo-Sanjō earthquake in which 1600 people died. The Yamadas lived in Yoita (与板), and their youngest child was one of the dead.

The letter opens with some small talk—the earthquake was terrible, everyone here is all right—but the centerpiece is this poem:

Uchitsuke ni/ shinaba shinazute/ nagaraete/ kakaru uki me wo/ miru ga wabishisa
Suddenly/ to have died... —Not having died/ I endure/ These woeful events/ The very sight of which is misery

The original of "endure" here is nagaraete, which literally means "live a long life." Ryōkan was in his 70s when he wrote this letter. This no doubt also contributed to his dead-envying stance.

The next few sentences are among Ryōkan's most celebrated:


Still, when it is time for disaster to strike, it is best to let it strike. When it is time to die, it is best to die. This is the sublime dharma (妙法) by which one may escape disaster.

Even for a Zen-trademark paradox, I feel that this could have been worded better, but it's generally taken at face value: don't make yourself miserable trying to dodge your fate. Just grin and bear it, same as you do life's constant parade of lesser insults and indignities.

This is why a Nietzschean friend of mine used to really hate Buddhism.

Bonus Ryōkan trivia: Ryōkan's nickname in the Yamada household was "Hotaru" (firefly). Why? Well, consider this poem from another letter to Yose:


It is become cold/ Now even the Firefly/ has no light/ The water of gold/Who will give it to me?

The "water of gold" is booze. Ryōkan is openly asking "O-Yoshi" to hook him up, as the kids say. (Remember, she married a brewer.) Nor is this the only poem along these shameless lines in his complete works. He even re-uses the "water of gold" thing! It is not for nothing that even today people still name sake after him.

Dude must've lit up like a Christmas tree to get the nickname "Hotaru" in a brewery, though.

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Leonardo Boiko:

> This is why a Nietzschean friend of mine used to really hate Buddhism.

I don't get it. Isn't what you describe exactly the same as Nietzsche's amor fati?


"It is become cold/"

Should be: It has become cold.


Nope, I want those old-time auxiliary verbs!

Leonardo: That's an interesting point, actually. My friend felt that the focus of Buddhism (specifically zen) on stilling the ego etc. conflicted with the whole self-directing overman thing, and preferred the latter.


So a great poet who shouts to the audience in so many words "who's getting me drunk tonight?" I love it. It reminds me of some of the smoother beggars in Washington DC. Once this dude came up to me and was like "Playa playa, can you give a brotha 75 cents?" That's almost a haiku right there.


It even has a "ya" at the end of its first line! I know someone from the wilds of Shikoku who'd love that.

language hat:

Sir, do not laugh
at a citizen of drink --
always happy, happy as the spring.

--Yen Shu

The two of us are having a drink together
as the mountain flowers bloom.
One cup -- one more -- well, one more!
Now I'm drunk and sleepy; you'd better go.
But come tomorrow morning if you will,
and bring your lute.

--Li Po

(my translations)


I dig the "It is become cold."
Reminds me of Eliot's "The nymphs are departed."

Sgt. Tanuki:

1. I actually really like the "it is become cold." Great way to capture "samuku narinu."

2. Knowing that I forfeit all respect for bringing up Neil Peart (but hey, you take poetry where you find it), the firefly one made me flash on a couplet from "Subdivisions" - "lit up like a firefly / just to feel the living night" - and understand it in a way I never had before. Thanks.

3. In the earthquake poem, I like "the very sight of which is misery" for "miru ga wabishisa." But I wonder if you wouldn't want to do something with his pivot on "me," which goes from being a woeful "event" to being somehow connected with the seeing of those events.

For the record, here's what I'd do with this poem:

To have died - or not to die,
To remain,
In a site of such suffering
The sight of which is misery


Well, I always say, you can never have enough puns. I like the such/which pair too (also "such" works better than "these" for "kakaru", for sure).

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